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It has taken a while for Australia to wake up to that reality. After all, the country was transformed by rough-country optimists unfazed by living on one of the least fertile landscapes on Earth. Australian scientist Tim Flannery calls it a "low-nutrient ecosystem," one whose soil has become old and infertile because it hasn't been stirred up by glaciers within the past million years. The Europeans who descended on the slopes of the Murray-Darling Basin—a vast semiarid plain about the size of Spain and France combined—were lulled by a string of mid-19th-century wet years into thinking they had discovered a latter-day Garden of Eden. Following the habits of their homelands, the settlers felled some 15 billion trees. Unaware of what it would mean to disrupt an established water cycle by uprooting vegetation well adapted to arid conditions, the new Australians introduced sheep, cattle, and water-hungry crops altogether foreign to a desert ecosystem. The endless plowing to encourage Australia's new bounty further degraded its soil.

And so a river became the region's lifeline. Like America's Mississippi River, the 1,600-mile Murray carries mythological significance, symbolizing endless possibility. Its network of billabongs, river red gums, Murray cod, and black swans are as affixed to the Australian ethos as the outback. From its headwaters in the Australian Alps to its destination at the Indian Ocean, the slender river meanders along a northwestern course, fed by the currents of the Murrumbidgee and Darling Rivers as it cuts a long borderline between New South Wales and Victoria before entering the semiarid brush country of South Australia and plunging toward the ocean at Encounter Bay. That its journey appears unhurried, even whimsical, adds to the river's legend.

Progress, for Australians, has involved bending the Murray River to their will. Over the past century, it has been mechanized by an armada of weirs, locks, and barrages, so that the flows will be of maximum benefit to the farmers who depend on irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin. As a result, says former commonwealth water minister Malcolm Turnbull, "we've got an unnatural environment in the river. Because it's regulated, the river now runs high when nature would run it low, and low when nature would run it high." That manipulation had unintended consequences. Irrigation caused salinity levels to skyrocket, which in turn poisoned wetlands and rendered large stretches of acreage unfit for cultivation.

Such was the rickety state of Australia's water supply even before the drought fell on it like a mallet, delivering a psychic blow for which the plucky land down under was not prepared. The crisis has pitted one state against another, big cities against rural areas, environmental managers against irrigators, and small farms against government-backed superfarms in a high-stakes competition for a shrinking commodity. Well beyond the national breadbasket of the Murray-Darling Basin, every major urban area has faced the clampdown of water restrictions and the subsequent browning of its revered English gardens and cricket ovals. The trauma is particularly acute in rural bastions of self-reliance, like the New South Wales dairy community inhabited by Malcolm Adlington, which are fast becoming ghost towns. Whole crops have been wiped out by heat stress and low moisture, while entire growing sectors—rice, cotton, citrus—face collapse.

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